For many, pets are not just animals; they are cherished companions, loyal friends, and family members.
The sudden or unexpected death of a pet can be as traumatic as losing a human loved one, leaving a profound sense of loss and emptiness in one's life.
A recent Michigan court case has sparked a debate on whether pet owners should be entitled to compensation for emotional distress when their pets die due to veterinary malpractice.
Background and veterinary malpractice lawsuit
Ross Levay brought his one-year-old cat, Kaiser, to the Bay Animal Hospital in Essexville, Michigan. The veterinarian administered prescription fluids, but Kaiser passed away a short time after.
Ross filed a veterinary malpractice lawsuit against the Bay Animal Hospital on various grounds, including wrongful death, veterinary malpractice, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
In essence, the lawsuit alleged that the veterinarian gave Kaiser 220 percent of the safe volume of prescription fluids for an animal of his size, causing his death.
The circuit court dismissed the case regarding the claims for non-economic damages, stating that Michigan law does not allow or recognize such damages for injuries to animals or pets.
Ross subsequently filed an appeal.
The Michigan Court of Appeals agreed with the circuit court, noting that there is no precedent in Michigan for allowing the recovery of emotional damages in connection with the injury or death of a pet and that it would be up to the legislature to create a law allowing such recovery.
“Plaintiff requests that we allow [recovery of emotional damages] when a pet is the property that is damaged, arguing that pets have evolved in our modern society to a status that is not consistent with their characterization as [property]. In essence, plaintiff requests that we create for pet owners an independent cause of action for loss of companionship when a pet is negligently injured by a veterinarian. Although this Court is sympathetic to plaintiff's position, we defer to the legislature to create such a remedy.”
Proving veterinary malpractice
Your veterinarian is not automatically liable for malpractice just because your pet suffered an injury or died while in their care. Some injuries are unavoidable or necessary to prevent more significant injuries.
To prove your veterinarian committed malpractice, you need to establish the following elements:
- Your veterinarian failed to exercise the degree of care and skill expected of a reasonable veterinarian, and
- The failure was the cause of your pet’s injury or death.
For instance, if your veterinarian examines your cat’s blood work and fails to identify cancer, the jury must determine the following:
- Would a reasonable veterinarian have detected cancer?
- Did the failure to detect cancer worsen your pet’s condition or lead to its death?
Jurors are not expected to possess medical expertise. Consequently, both parties usually hire medical experts to testify about the reasonableness of the veterinarian's actions.
The need to retain expert witnesses is one of the factors that make veterinary malpractice cases costly to pursue.
Damages available in veterinary malpractice cases
To understand the damages obtainable in veterinary malpractice cases, let's briefly examine the three types of damages typically accessible in civil lawsuits:
- Economic damages represent the financial losses caused by the defendant's actions or inactions (medical expenses, property damage, etc.).
- Non-economic damages represent the non-financial losses caused by the defendant's actions or inactions (pain and suffering, emotional distress, loss of companionship, etc.).
- Punitive damages aim to penalize the defendant and discourage similar behavior.
As made clear by the Michigan Court of Appeals, pets are classified as property in Michigan (along with most other states). As a result, pet owners are limited to recovering the following damages:
- The fair market value of the pet if it dies (i.e., the cost to purchase a similar pet in the open market).
- Medical expenses (the cost of treating injuries resulting from the veterinarian's malpractice).
What to do if your pet is injured as a result of veterinary malpractice
Due to the minimal amount of damages available, it can be difficult to find an attorney willing to take on a veterinary malpractice case. This doesn’t mean it’s impossible to find a willing attorney, and you should certainly consider reaching out to attorneys in your area.
However, it would be wise to explore alternatives, including:
- Law school clinics: Most law schools have legal clinics. In these clinics, law students represent qualifying members of the local community for free under the supervision of licensed attorneys.
- Legal Service Corporation (LSC): LSC is an independent nonprofit established by Congress in 1974 to provide financial support for legal aid to low-income individuals. LSC provides funding to 132 independent nonprofit legal aid organizations in every state. You can use LSC’s website to find an organization near you.
- State bar associations: Every state has a state bar association. Most of these bar associations have a phone number that you can call to get connected with lawyers who offer free or reduced-cost legal services to low-income individuals.
- Small claims court: Small claims court is designed to be a way for people to recover money in cases that are too small to be worth going through regular litigation, which can be costly and time-consuming. There’s no minimum amount you can sue for in small claims court. In Michigan, the maximum amount you can sue for in the Small Claims Division is $6,500.